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Kilwa

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... is a group of historic coastal settlements in a little-visited part of the Indian Ocean Coast of Tanzania, some 330km south of Dar es Salaam.

The settlement of Kilwa Masoko is the more substantial of the three towns carrying the name, a relatively small and sleepy backwater, pleasant enough but without any sights of specific interesting. Most of the rather modest accommodation in the area is either along the main beach or on the open bay slightly to the north, with activities including diving and snorkelling trips out to nearby reefs, as well as canoeing explorations of nearby mangrove forests and sailing in local dhows.

Most importantly Kilwa Masoko is the main base from which to visit the extraordinary ninth century Swahili ruins of Kilwa Kisiwani, a UNESCO World Heritage Site located on a 20 square kilometre island ten minutes by motorboat across the bay. For centuries the island was home to the most significant settlement of the whole Swahili Coast, from which a network of caravan routes led into the interior, more notably to gold mines of ancient Zimbabwe. It was described by travellers as "one of the greatest and most beautiful cities in the world".

The ancient Swahili ruins are fronted by by a much more recent Portuguese fort, which was first established as early as 1505. The beaches of alongside the fort are littered with remnants of an ancient past, with Chinese pottery hinting at the extent of the Indian Ocean trade that existed well before the arrival of the Portuguese.

The main ruins lie a little further inland and are centred on the Mukutani Palace, the fortified home of the Omani sultans who once ruled the place, which dates back to the fifteenth century. But perhaps the most impressive structure on the island is the Grand Mosque, with its colonnaded hallways and domed roofs. Originally founded in the 11th century, the main prayer hall was constructed in 1320. There is also a royal cemetery is tucked away behind an enormous baobab tree. The graves are 500 to 700 years old, but the tree could easily be over 2000 years old. The island features a large and very pleasant village, a lovely place to observe and experience old-style of Swahili culture.

Set on the coast some 20km to the north is the charming backwater of Kilwa Kivinje, which was established as an Arab slave trading centre from around 1810 and greatly extended by the Germans towards the end of that century. The town is now a shadow of its former self and most of the local people have reverted back to fishing for a living. Large parts of the old town remain standing, but in a great state of disrepair, which provides the place with a really unique and special atmosphere. A notable monument in the middle of town commemorates the death of two German soldiers who were killed when suppressing a local uprising in 1888. Unsurprisingly the locals don't pay it much attention, but it is remarkable that no one has stolen the four original cannons by which is it encircled.

The Kilwa area experiences relatively low visitor traffic and does retain a sense of the old Swahili Coast, you certainly do feel like you are getting a little deeper under the skin of the country when you are down here.


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